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January 2011

Ecstatic Music Festival Recap: Week One

Over the course of three programs at last week's Ecstatic Music Festival, musicians from the indie and classical worlds collided, producing sparks of various colors and hues. Depending on who was involved, some sparks flew farther and faster than others.

On Wednesday night, the Chiara String Quartet - who also played Monday's marathon - performed new works by Nico Muhly and the Icelandic composer/producer Valgeir Sigurðsson, best known as Bjork's go-to producer. Nico and Valgeir have been working together for several years now: Valgeir produced and released Nico's debut album, Speaks Volumes (2007) and have been performed together numerous times in the past, including a Wordless Music Series show that also featured Sigur Rós.

The concert was conceived last year, when the Chiara Quartet asked Nico to compose a work for them. As part of the deal - an ongoing series which the quartet has dubbed "Creator/Curator" - Nico also got to program the rest of the concert. According to the Chiara's lead violinist, Jonah Sirota, most other composers in the series chose to surround their piece with existing works, whereas Nico served up a new work by Valgeir. So, they'd basically be getting two premieres for the price of one. 

Only catch: Valgeir had never written a piece of classical music before. Ever.

So, I'll be charitable and say that the quartet that Valgeir wrote, Nebraska - named for the school where the Chiara has been in residence (University of Nebraska) since 2005 - was a noble first attempt. What it may have lacked in depth or complexity, it made up for with rich textures and driving, repeating motifs that owed more than a small debt to Philip Glass. (Nico, who used to work with Glass, no doubt offered a helping hand here and there.)

But Nico's quartet, Diacritical Marks, gave them something more substantial to chew on. Written in eight movements during a random, bleary-eyed trip to Bangkok, the modal quartet was centered around a repeating motif from which radiated soundscapes of varying intensity and color. Among the many brilliant moments, there was a duet between the 2nd violin and cello which came off sounding like either a truncated quarrel or a friendly chat in the street, depending on your point of view. In a way, it reminded me of the duets/arguments Elliott Carter peppered throughout his 3rd Quartet (though I seriously doubt Nico had Elliott top-of-mind while he was writing.)

In between, the music vacillated between Valgeir's atmospheric film music - played by the Chiara, Nico and Nadia Sirota - and fantasies by Byrd, Dowland and Gibbons, whose music Nico grew up singing and to which he is still deeply devoted, if not indebted. As a composer friend pointed out to me on the way home, Diacritical Marks was written in the same modal fashion as those 16th century forebears, but with a higher degree of focus, illuminating every last possible detail until it shined like a highly polished jewel. 

Much hay has been made about the Ecstatic Music Festival's ambition to take this music - which is usually heard at places like LPR or Galapagos - and bring it to an uptown (and presumably, new) audience. But, on Thursday night, a whole other sort of migration took place: namely, the wholesale migration of Dan Deacon's tribe of devotees from Williamsburg (and its environs) to the Upper West Side.

When I arrived at the box office to pick my tickets, there was a massive standby line of mostly teen- and twentysomethings hoping to somehow get into the sold-out concert: Merkin's capacity is 600, which is fairly small for Deacon. But this was anything but a typical Dan Deacon show: as he told us from the stage, Dan studied composition as an undergrad before transitioning into the world of DIY electronics he's become known for.

"I realized there was no money in trying to pursue a career in art music," Dan said. "So, I went into the pop world instead, and for the past six years, I've been trying to fool someone into letting me back into this world. I guess they finally bought it."

Seemingly incidental to the whole affair was the fact that So Percussion - hardly unknowns in their own right - were actually the main players on the bill: apparently, Dan had spent the entire week crashing on a couch in their loft. They led off the show - accompanied by journeyman guitarist Grey McMurray but sans Jason Treuting, who was in the hospital with his wife and their first child - with various selections involving percussion, electronics and video, including Matmos' bowtied Michael Schmidt making various silly noises on videotape. 


That set the stage for Dan, who played his audience participation card by having So Percussion pass out a set of instructions to the audience that asked for everything from shouts and whispers to cell phones placed on speakerphone. For all its seeming newness, it was actually a throwback to the aleatoric works of John Cage and Pauline Oliveros: a fact not lost on the sixtysomething members of the audience, who pitched in with much the same enthusiasm as their younger neighbors.

 DSC05089After intermission, Dan and So Percussion took the stage together for Dan's oddly titled Ghostbuster Cook: The Origin of the Riddler: an ambitious 30 minute work that managed to be both playful and serious, challenging and rewarding. It started with the members of So banging on mic'd 2 liter bottles of soda while Dan worked the knobs on his familiar table of wires and knobs. 


Then came the big payoff: the members of So moved over to a row of bass drums and started pounding away at deafening volume while Dan upped the volume on his increasingly-crazy electronics. The intensity rose to fever pitch, with the kids in the audience bobbing their heads in rhythm. I think I even heard a couple of "Whoops!"


Then, it was back to the soda bottles, where the members of So poked pinholes in them, the liquid inside slowly emptying into plastic tubs placed underneath. They then stood over a battery of vibes, mallets in hand... and proceeded to do nothing as the bottles emptied. This went on for literally ten minutes: yet another Cageian gesture blurring the definition of music. For the most part, people in the audience realized what was happening and waited patiently for the bottles to empty, though one guy shouted: "Are you fucking kidding me?" and stormed out.

Finally, the bottles emptied and So began to play the most beautiful melody on the vibes, like church bells in Spring, sweet and pure. They played for just as long as it took the bottles to empty out, leaving us with only a vague recollection of how long we'd all sat there listening to "nothing." When it was finally over, the whole theater exploded in cheers: like an abusive boyfriend, Dan always knows how to pick us up at the end, cheerfully cajoling us into coming back for more. And, inevitably - happily - we do.


Over the past decade, former Shudder To Think lead singer Craig Wedren has made the transition from the world of avant-rock to art music, scoring film music as well as spiky, often dystopic solo music. (Apparently, Trent Reznor isn't exactly a trend setter in this arena.) On Saturday, a well-dressed Wedren in a black 3-piece suit performed a selection of his solo music, using nothing but guitar and some looping pedals: it reminded me of how Ted Leo used to perform, post-Chisel and pre-Pharmacists.

Wedren acme 
After intermission, Wedren was joined by local new music ensemble ACME to perform a cycle of art songs about various aspects of love (On In Love), written with composer and former bandmate Jefferson Friedman. (Friedman prefers the phrase "concept album" to song cycle.) When I last saw ACME and Wedren do these songs at Bowery Ballroom in Sept '09, the experience was thrilling, a shot across the bow of musical segregation. But here, in the confines of Merkin Hall, it felt strained, as if Wedren was trying to live up to a more rarefied set of expectations. It didn't help that noone thought to adjust the stage lighting, leaving just a cold whiteness flashing off Wedren's shaved head.

Wedren guitar acme
It also didn't help that Wedren sang most of the songs clinging to the mic stand, leaving ACME to fill in for his familiar plugged-in band. Finally, he picked up his Les Paul for the final song in the cycle, "Glacier": a post-rock anthem that felt almost spectral in its inertia. Gradually, the music built with emotional power, surging from dark menace to an epic climax worthy of Explosions In the Sky. Yeah, more of that.

Wedren acme friedman

More pics on Flickr.


Ecstatic Music Festival Recap: Marathon

I've been spending an inordinate amount of time at Merkin Concert Hall this week, where the inaugural Ecstatic Music Festival has set up camp, hosting shows 4 of the past 6 nights (which is why I'm only playing catchup now.) The festival, curated by NewAm's Judd Greenstein, is all about blurring the lines between new/classical music and indie-pop - though this ain't your momma's Classical Crossover, tailored for aging suburbanites wanting to relive their crazy rock 'n roll youth. (Orchestral Music of The Doors, anyone?)

No, the parties involved here meet squarely in the middle of the classical/rock continuum. Most of the rock people involved either have a background in classical music (Dan Deacon, Owen Pallett) or a deep affinity for it (Craig Wedren, tUnE-yArDs). Conversely, many of the classical peeps have spent significant time in the rock/pop world, either as arrangers (Nico) or performers (Caleb, Jefferson Friedman). 


But, at the same time, this sort of presentation isn't really new: Bang on a Can has been exploring this fertile no-man's-land between rock and new/classical music for decades, particularly with their bi-annual musical smörgåsbord, the Bang on a Can Marathon, as well as the Bang on a Can People's Commissioning Fund Concert, which typically recruits musicians from the indie/electronic world to write a piece for the BOAC All Stars. (This year's concert, which has been absorbed by the EMF, will be at Merkin on Feb. 10.) Judd, along with many of the other performers/composers, cut their new music teeth with Bang on a Can, and clearly have taken more than a few pages from their playbook. 

So, it was only fitting that the Ecstatic Music Festival kicked off this past Monday with its very own marathon, taking advantage of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday by starting in the early afternoon. The event, which was free, encouraged visitors to come and go as they pleased, provided there was sufficient capacity in the theater.


When I got there around 4pm, Judd was speaking from the stage, remarking how much he wished he'd had this kind of structure and support for new music when he was coming up. He also paid respect to Dr. King, appropriating a quote from one of his sermons as a rallying cry:

"Will we march only to the music of time, or will we, risking criticism and abuse, march to the soul-saving music of eternity?"

As I sat in the balcony absorbing Jefferson Friedman's mournful, melodic, occasionally creepy 3rd string quartet (played by the Chiara String Quartet), I started to question the wisdom of sitting in this warm, windowless concert hall for the next six hours, or my commitment to seeing all of this week's other concerts. And, then I remembered: this is where music is going, not where it's been. Somewhere hidden within all these pages could be the next Britten, the next Bartok. Or, not. But, who wouldn't want a front-row seat for the possibility?

Judd's own meandering, wind-driven "City Boy" (played by the NOW Ensemble) was followed by Brits John Matthias, Adrian Corker and Andrew Prior. All three are active in the London-based Nonclassical scene, which has drawn comparisons to New Amsterdam, both in sound and mojo. Matthias led on violin and vocals, while Prior played piano and Corker added beats and processing on his laptop. (They were almost done in by the soundguy, who kept drowning out the vocals.) I had the chance to chat with Matthias in the VIP Lounge afterwards (free wine!), and he told me that they flew over specifically for this show, courtesy of the British Arts Council. "We always love coming to New York," he said. "There's so much amazing stuff happening here."

Singers were a dominant presence on the marathon, all of whom skirted the line between art song and indie-pop. Former choirster Julianna Barwick sang vocalise into a microphone, looping and processing her serene voice via an electronic sampler. The odd and often-disturbing Corey Dargel - his songs address self-amputation and hypochondria - did his best Stephen Merritt imitation with Other People's Love Songs (2008): a cycle of 13 unconventional love songs based on interviews he did with various gay/straight/other couples. Unfortunately, Corey sabotaged himself by going on way too long, losing half the audience in the process.


Alternatively, Gabriel Kahane played a tight and engaging four-song set of new and old favorites, including "Neurotic and Lonely" from Craigslistlieder. Gabe, who's played everywhere from Rockwood Music Hall to the Allen Room, knows how to work a room, with effortless between-song banter and some serious vocal chops to go along with his intricate piano playing. This is how "crossover" is supposed to sound, friends.


Also prominent on the bill were string players who seemed to want to wield their instruments like guitars. Cellist Ashley Bathgate belied her fresh-faced appearance with performances of Kate Moore's Velvet (with pianist Lisa Moore) and Michael Gordon's Industry (1993), sawing over electronics that pounded the theater walls like a sledgehammer. Violist Nadia Sirota, a featured player on numerous EMF bills, performed Nico Muhly's aching Keep In Touch, also with piano and electronics (supplied by Muhly and Valgeir Sigurðsson, respectively.)  


The evening's main event was a collaborative set between Missy Mazzoli's Victoire and the folk-punk duo Buke and Gass, who have long skirted the indie/new music divide (they also played last summer's Bang on a Can Marathon.) As Missy admitted from the stage, these two were set up on a "musical blind date" by Judd, without any real sense of how Victoire's composed structure and B&G's scruffy wail would gel. 

The results were mixed. Victoire started off with their own brief set, then were joined by B&G, with the normally-irrepressible Arone Dyer struggling to contain herself as she keened softly over Missy's synths and strings. As if to shake off the awkwardness, once Victoire left the stage, she and Aron stood up and made the whole audience do stretching exercises before launching into their own high-energy set.


Victoire returned for the last few numbers, though at this point they were relegated to the role of backing band to B&G, with Missy and Lorna engaging in choreographed hand gestures while their keyboards sat silent. Also frustratingly silent was the audience, which flattened what would have otherwise been a truly ecstatic experience (pun intended). This was the first in a number of planned cross-pollinations between indie and classical artists that are expected to be the hallmark of this festival; one can only hope the others will better reflect the true spirit of collaboration. 

Apologies to Ne(x)tworks, Timo Andres, Face the Music and So Percussion, who all performed while I was making my way on the A train from JFK; you can read about their performances in Steve's Times review. And, there's still more to come on the rest of last week's offerings.

DSC05034More pics on Flickr.

Tony's Top 10

The GreatestFor those who care, Tony Tommasini just released his final list of the Top 10 Composers of all time in this morning's Times. As some of you will remember from my own Top 20 list a couple of weeks ago, I disagree with Tony on a number of fronts, not the least of which is his refusal to include any living composers (though as the Times' Chief Music Critic, I can understand his not wanting to piss off anyone he might know personally.) And, you just have to laugh at his rationale for putting Verdi - who didn't even make my list - above Wagner:

"Verdi was a decent man, an Italian patriot and the founder of a retirement home for musicians still in operation in Milan. Wagner was an anti-Semitic, egomaniacal jerk who transcended himself in his art."

Note to Tony: if we were to eliminate Assholes from any list of the World's Greatest Artists, the museums, theaters and libraries in this country would be half-empty. At least.

Anyway, here's the list, in order:

  1. Bach
  2. Beethoven
  3. Mozart
  4. Schubert
  5. Debussy
  6. Stravinsky
  7. Brahms
  8. Verdi
  9. Wagner
  10. Bartok

More than half of these guys (sadly, there are no women on either of our lists) show up on my own list, which is frankly more than I expected. And, in retrospect, I do regret leaving off Debussy, who wrote some really unique, radical stuff that led the way for folks like Ravel and Boulez.

But, Mozart, Schubert and Verdi? No. Engaging and delightful as their creations might be, these guys wrote music for hire, not for eternity. They were craftsmen first, artists second. One could say the same of Bach, who approached composing as an occupation rather than as a calling, but Bach still managed to wield profound influence on his successors (albeit 100 years after his death.)

Who would I replace those three with? How about we start with Messiaen, who was arguably the most ecstatic and wondrous composer in history? Are we really going to leave Mahler - whose music was delivered wholesale from a realm beyond our understanding - off this list? And, anyone who prefers Verdi to Puccini seriously needs their head examined. (Wagner, after listening to Verdi's Requiem, put it simply: "It would be best not to say anything.")

I'm still not entirely sure what the point of this whole exercise was, but if nothing else, it did ignite some fierce debate: over 1,500 music lovers (incl. your's truly) took the time to write in with their own variously considered lists/ complaints/ grievances. So, at the very least, it's good to know people still give a damn.

Thoughts? Comments? Fire away.

P.S. You can vote for your own Top 10 (from a weirdly-selective list) here